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Lawmaker addresses domestic violence, poor

Friday, September 16, 2005

WASHINGTON - Many welfare recipients who are victims of domestic violence are not taking advantage of government rules that exempt them from the aid program's work requirements.

That conclusion from a Government Accountability Office study is a concern because it means some women aren't getting the help they need from the states and the federal government, said one of the Democrats who sought the report, Rep. Pete Stark of California.

"They don't have workers trained to counsel people who have been subject to abuse and understand the needs of the people," Stark said. "They just ignore it, and that's the sad part."

Domestic violence affects a substantial percentage of poor women. A 2001 study in Michigan found that about 51 percent of the women in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program had been severely abused at some point in their life, and that 15 percent had been abused in the previous year.

States help TANF clients address domestic violence by granting waivers that exempt the clients from work requirements, and by referring the clients to other services, such as counseling or shelters. The GAO could not find reliable national numbers for the number of waivers granted, but states shed some light on the answer.

Georgia, for example, granted 925 domestic abuse waivers from October 2003 through September 2004, which represents less than 2 percent of the state's adult caseload. Washington granted 5,162 waivers, slightly more than 9 percent of the state's adult caseload.

The GAO said the number of waivers granted in some states may be small because clients were exempted from the work requirements in other ways, or because victims can comply despite their situation. The agency recommended that the Health and Human Services Department provide the states with guidance on screening practices for domestic violence.

Case workers told the GAO that, in some cases, women who suffer from domestic abuse don't want a waiver from the work requirements. Work is the lifeline that gets them out of harm's way, so a waiver would be inappropriate.

Anne Menard, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, agreed that waivers in some cases would be inappropriate, but she also fears that too many cases of domestic violence go unnoticed.

"The numbers are of concern. I think they are low, but I'm not just concerned about the number of waivers granted. I'm concerned about how TANF offices are responding to requests for special accommodations," Menard said. "I agree with the report's finding that it's a good time to look more deeply at best practices, and for HHS to provide more guidance to the states."

Stark said he would call for the federal government to go a step further by requiring minimum training thresholds for case workers on how to spot and work with victims of domestic violence. He would like to see the federal government provide the funding to conduct that training.

"Often the violence goes to children as well," Stark said. "That's pretty scary."

In its response, which was included in the report, the Administration for Children and Families said it agreed that it would be beneficial for states to get instruction on the best ways to screen for domestic violence, but "with disagreement among experts in the field, ACF is reluctant to advocate particular screening approaches over others, allowing the state and local entities the latitude to determine the techniques that serve their clients best."

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